Street photographer Zun Lee didn’t set out to become a photographer, he just used the hobby as a way of relieving stress and found he really enjoyed—and had an eye for—documenting people on the street. Without even knowing it, he was drawn particularly to fathers and their children, which would become an important theme in his work, especially after finding out the man he knew as his dad was not really his biological father after all:
In the 1960s, Lee’s Korean mother moved to Germany, had a brief affair with an African American man, and became pregnant. She would go on to marry a Korean journalist who raised her son as his own, but as Lee grew up, the two would have a strained relationship. In 2004, Lee’s mother told him of the affair, breaking the news that the father he knew was really his stepdad. The news was not only shocking for Lee, leaving him confused and hurt, but it also made him question his identity.
Learning that his real father was black, Lee would try to explore the stereotypes of black fathers through his photography.
“When we talk about black fathers, the imagery associated is that they’re irresponsible, they’re absent, they’re deadbeats and not willing to pick up their share of personal responsibility. The examples to counter the negative stereotypes are Dr. Cliff Huxtable or even Barack Obama. It’s one or the other. There’s very little about the everyday dad who may not be perfect, but is still a part of his child’s life.”
For Lee, exploring father-child relationships is deeply personal and he photographs them to show the authentic, true moments of fatherhood. His project, “Father Figure,” is an intimate document of real African American fathers that challenges the stereotypes of black families.
“As I was photographing these fathers, I realized not only are they warm, affectionate, and loving to their children, but they’re not perfect. None of the fathers are. There is no such thing as the perfect father—that is something the media tries to tell us.”
Lee is also working on another project called “Fade Resistance” that revolves around discarded Polaroid pictures of black families that he found.
“If you look at the actual images, they are so full of love and pride and joy—these are not just regular family photos. They have this very specific context of resistance, showing something that goes against the stereotype.”
On his website, Lee writes that he wants to develop an interactive, digital archive of the found photos that will serve as a meeting ground for writers, photographers, historians, and viewers to draw histories, stories, and meaning from generations of self-representation and inspire collaboration and conversation about black stereotypes.